This month, between Jan. 18-21, Michael Tilson Thomas brings Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to the Golden City’s Davies Symphony Hall; and if opera isn’t yet your thing, consider it a great opportunity to have one of America’s best conductors give you a show by one of America’s greatest composers.
Amongst America’s most talented and seasoned musicians, Michael Tilson Thomas has had an impressive career as conductor, pianist, and composer for the stage, TV, and film. Thomas has directed some of the most famous orchestras in New York, London, Boston and Los Angeles, and in 1995, he was appointed as San Francisco Symphony’s 11th Music Director.
This month, he’ll be bringing his unique approach to Bernstein’s classic Candide, which is a comic operetta; behind the often murky language of theater, that means it’s a classic that is supposed to engage the heart as well as the brain; and crucially, it’s also supposed to be funny, with dialogue and jokes as well as formidably talented singers and intricate melodies.
Candide is based on the 18th-century novella by Voltaire (last seen dying for someone’s right to say something with which he disagreed), and the show has had a checkered history: after being written by Bernstein and Lillian Hellman way back in 1956, the show launched to surprisingly underwhelming reviews. For someone with Bernstein’s reputation, that was a shock; and it was only over time that the show built a reputation as a new kind of musical theater. 18 years after the show’s premiere, the show was rewritten by Hugh Wheeler, without either Bernstein or Hellman being involved. That version was well-received but simple; there was an emotional undercurrent to Bernstein and Hellman’s version which just wasn’t there in the updated show.
The version of Candide you’ll see at the Davies Symphony Hall is Bernstein’s updated version from 1989, written before his death in 1990. The show has two acts. In the first, the operetta welcomes the audience to the German region of Westphalia, where we’ll follow Candide and his sweetheart Cunegonde (who really is called Cunegonde, because of history), through a series of adventures and misadventures as they intermittently lose and find each other along the journey that life takes them on. There are battles; there is love; there is a surprising amount of travel, for a show set in the 18th century, with the characters stumbling into each other and fumbling their love across Paris, Cadiz, Uruguay, Venice, and Suriname.
For musical theater geeks, it’s also a chance to see a fascinating piece of history. Having been written before his success in West Side Story, and before a career that redefined musical theater, Candide is a chance to see Bernstein’s work as a young man; but because it was revised by Bernstein only months before his death, it’s also a chance to see one of the masters look back over his whole career to an early disappointment and work out how he’d do it differently if he’d only known then what he learned over a lifetime.
It’s a comedy, sure; but it’s got heart, and it will be performed by the best, this week in San Francisco.
Photo of Leonard Bernstein courtesy of San Francisco Symphony (c) Library of Congress